The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


Let Them Be Fragile Around You, Not Defining You …

Once upon a time I worked with a male creative who was one of the most sexist pricks I’ve ever met. He was condescending, patronising and – even worse – did all they could to stand in the way of female talent.

There was one situation where he actively tried to stop me from hiring one of the best planners in the World simply because she was a woman … knew more about sport than him and was much better at it as well.

He tried so hard to find fault with her, when all the time he was revealing his fragile ego.

And while I dealt with him – resulting in us hiring this brilliant planner who has gone on to have the sort of career most people could only ever dream of having – the fact is, her career could have been severely undermined if he had got his way.

What makes it worse is he is a loving father of daughters.

If anyone should be treating female talent with respect and encouragement – surely it should be someone with 2 daughters of their own. But then I remembered watching the ex-Prime Minister of Iceland – Vigdís Finnbogadottir – in Michael Moore’s documentary, ‘Where To Invade Next’ who explained things perfectly.

“While men would never want another man standing in the way of their daughters career potential, that attitude only extends to their daughter … not women in general”.

Of course she’s right.

That’s what’s so fucked up. Especially about men.

As is the vernacular they use to describe female colleagues.

Calling them emotional.

Fragile.

Weak.

And while I would rather work with an emotional, sensitive and compassionate person any day of the weak, the fact is women are way stronger than the vast majority of men I know.

Fuck, my wife has shown more courage than I could ever hope to muster.

From saying yes to moving countries with a man she had only known for 6 weeks to carrying our kid for 9 months and then PUSHING HIM OUT to just embracing every challenge that has been put in her way … everything about her is stronger than Superman and more inspiring than any Nike spot. [Sorry Swoosh, you know I still love you]

Then there’s the fact the vast majority of female leaders [of which there’s still too few] actively bring their whole team along with them versus a lot of men, who just want to take themselves forward.

And yet, despite all this, women continually face gender devaluation by many men – specifically white men – which is why I bloody love the poster at the top of this post designed by the brilliant Kat at Colenso designed from this amazing quote by Rahul Singh Rathour.

Which is why I hope women embrace being fragile like a bomb … because it means those around them will fear them rather than them having to fear those around them.



Creativity Vs Complicity …

So many ads today end up just being fancy sales brochures.

A nondescript, stylish image that either has some meaningless line thrust upon it or a literal lift of the proposition from the brief to become the headline.

Clients love it because they think there’s no wastage.

That there’s no ‘thinking’ that the audience has to do to ‘get the message’.

I remember years ago – when I was working on SONY – the client kept referencing Mr Bean.

No, I’m not joking.

They kept saying Mr Bean is understood by all. Loved by all. Communicates a message without saying a word. They were really trying to push this until I pointed out that while that’s the case, no one would spend thousands buying a TV made by Mr Bean.

Then Balls got made and undermined my argument for years. Hahahaha.

And while I hate looking backwards, I can’t help but think the past was far more interesting creatively than where we’re at today.

These days Audi talk about ‘Future is an attitude‘ when once they talked about Vorsprung Durch Technik.

We have Chivas Regal going on about ‘every taste is an experience’ when once they talked about ‘giving Dad an expensive belt‘.

Heineken now ‘open your world‘ when they once ‘refreshed the parts other beers can’t reach‘.

We have countless other brands who were once so powerful with their brand voice who have now become bland.

[Nothing sums it up like this Audi ad for the same car with pretty much the same line]

What really gets me, is we have the talent in the industry to change this.

We have the hunger as well.

But while there are exceptions – and I mean it in terms of agencies who consistently bring the work rather than the odd bit of work getting through – somewhere along the line, we seem to have chosen a path of complicity.

Without doubt the research techniques becoming more and more favoured by companies plays a part in this. As our clients who are more focused on not making a mistake than making an impact. But it cannot be ignored that agencies have a lack of desire to stand up for what they believe is right. Preferring to be complicit rather than respected.

Which may explain why so few of them believe it is worth investing in finding out what is really going on in culture – preferring instead, to either outsource it or just accept the viewpoint of whichever ‘paid for’ 3rd party the client has hired to do the work for them.

What brought this all up was seeing an old Honda ad from the late 70’s/early 80’s.

OK, so Honda have a long history of doing great work – especially from Wieden London – but it’s always been a brand that has run to its own rhythm with its own idiosyncrasies. But even they – these days – are falling into the trap of rubbing off the edges that defines who they are to become like everyone else.

This ad – like so many of the truly great early 80’s ads – came from Chiat/Day.

My god, what an agency they were.

Sadly I say ‘were’ because as much as they still have great people in there and pull off the occasional truly interesting bit of work, when you compare them to what they were like decades ago, there is no comparison.

Brave. Honest. Distinctive. Creative as hell.

Hell, even when they lost, they did it in a way where they would win.

Every single person in adland – especially at C-Suite level – should read this brilliant article by Cameron Day, son of Guy Day … one of the founders of Chiat.

‘How Big Till We Go Bad’ is a fantastic guide on how to build a truly great agency. And then destroy it.

Anyway, I digress.

The Honda ad I saw of theirs was this …

No, your eyes are not deceiving you.

Once upon a time, car manufacturers – or at least some of them – understood equality.

No cliches.

No pandering.

Just treating their audience as adults and equals.

It’s not really that hard is is, but if you compare it to what we see today, it feels we’ve regressed. [Read more about car ad devolution – with a few exceptions – here]

I do not want to look in the past.

I believe my best creative work is ahead of me.

Or at least the potential of it.

To paraphrase Death of a Salesman – or the equally brilliant Nils of Uncommon – we shouldn’t be interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, you understand? There’s a big blaze going on all around.

But the problem is, people have to see the woods are burning and I worry a bunch of the fuckers think it’s a sunset. Then again, it will be … because if we don’t push forwards, it will be the sunset on our industry and that will be the ultimate insult, because the past should never be more exciting and interesting than the future.



Being Positive Means Nothing If You’re Denying The Truth …

Toxicity.

It’s a great word to describe a terrible thing.

It perfectly captures the strategy so many companies, people, governments have adopted to get ahead regardless of the cost.

But what a cost it is.

As the stories of Corporate Gaslighting highlight, it is destructive, debilitating and harmful and its rightfully being called out more and more.

However one of the byproducts of this rightful shift has been the increasing number of companies and agencies who will only accept ‘the positive’.

I’m not talking about them wanting to offer optimism in a challenging world, I mean they are actively dismissing or ignoring anything that they deem as bringing negativity into the conversation.

Questions about decisions.
Realities about their audiences.
Considerations about the categories.

No … no … no … no … no!!!

It’s the ultimate sign of privilege. Not to mention arrogance. An ability to simply close eyes and ears to the realities millions face every single day, just so they can continue living in their own Disneyland of the mind.

Actually Disneyland isn’t right, because their stories involve struggles and challenges … so we’re talking about organisations who make Disney look negative.

Jesus Christ!!!

And yet in the same breath, they will wax lyrical about wanting to have ‘deeper connections with their customers’ as well as ‘living their brand purpose’.

Of course it’s complete bollocks.

Deeper understanding equates to ‘how can we sell more stuff to them’.

And brand purpose is …. well, you know my view.

Can brand purpose have value?

Absolutely.

But brand purpose isn’t something you can ‘invent’ on a whim.

Nor is it a marketing tool to drive sales.

And it absolutely isn’t about saving the world.

It can be.

For some.

But it probably isn’t for most.

Which is why pharmaceutical companies saying stuff life, ‘We exist to rid the world of pain’ … makes me laugh so much I get a headache.

The reality is pain makes these companies oodles of money. The last thing they will ever want to do is rid the world of it.

And you know what … I’m cool with that.

Pain happens and they help it stop.

Cool.

But to say they want to get rid of it all?

Forever?

Are they forgetting how pain can actually be useful to people.

How it can help us understand our limits?

Can guide us to better decisions?

Without pain, can you imagine the trouble we would be in?

Which all explains why I – and shitloads of the planet – don’t believe a word they say when they, and countless other companies in countless other categories, go on about ‘their purpose’, especially when it’s obviously the total opposite of what funds their business?

And yet this delusional positivity of purpose is everywhere.

And what’s worse is we’re seeing more and more companies and agencies actively celebrate it, encourage it and demand it.

I cannot tell you how many planners I’ve spoken to about not being allowed to bring truth to their meetings and conversations.

I talked a lot about this – and the reasons behind it – in my rant at WARC, but it still blows my mind that companies and agencies expect planners to adopt this approach when it’s literally the opposite of what our jobs are about.

Planners are not blind cheerleaders.

We liberate through filter-free truth.

That means we’re supposed to question, challenge, have a hint of cynicism, push buttons.

Not to be dicks, but to help you be better.

It you want a planner to just accept whatever alternative reality you live in, go hire a bunch of Alexa’s.

You can say as much as you like that …

“We don’t really have competition”.

Or

“We don’t like negative insights”

Or

“We don’t want to talk about negative comments about us”

… but that doesn’t mean we should just accept it.

I don’t get why some people have this belief questioning is wrong.

At its most basic level, questioning is about wanting to understand more and surely that’s a good thing.

And even if we challenge what we’re hearing … it’s not to cause upset, it’s to get to truth.

Real truth, not corporate.

The truth that helps create great work. Not just in terms of creativity and cultural resonance … but commercial value.

If you don’t want to hear that, then frankly, you don’t want to grow. Or evolve. Or do something that can genuinely mean something.

Anyway, the reason for this post is because I was recently talking to a couple of creative mates of mine and they introduced me to the most perfect expression for this new attitude of only wanting and accepting ‘the positive’.

It’s this …

Oh my god, how good is that!!!

I cannot tell you how much I love it.

Not just the expression of Toxic Positivity, but the definition.

“The belief no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life.”

Both are utterly, undeniably, absolutely bloody perfect.

Because both are utterly, undeniably, absolutely bloody true.

When I heard it, it immediately helped explain why I found so many things in LA, so annoying.

Don’t get me wrong, there were amazing people there. And the country is amazing in many ways.

I absolutely feel a deep sense of gratitude for the experience my family and I got to have there.

However quite a lot of people I met had this ability to blatantly ignore reality in favour of repetitively repeating some superficial and delusional positivity while trying to look like they weren’t annoyed when I asked what the hell they were talking about.

Even the mere suggestion that everything was not quite as perfect as they are trying to claim was met with an icy smile.

I think I’ve written about it before, but America taught me the difference between truth and honesty.

For me, truth is often uncomfortable.

It doesn’t mean it’s done to be harmful, but it does force situations to be seen, explored, discussed and dealt with.

But honesty – at least the version of it I experienced in the US – was different.

Honesty there, was truth with so many layers of sugar-coating on it, you didn’t taste any bitterness or sharpness.

What it meant was everything was designed to be easy to swallow … to give the impression of openness without being open.

Silicon Valley are particularly good at this approach.

White people – dealing with issues regarding race – are exceptionally good at this approach.

An ability to ignore reality by communicating an alternative version of it.

One that bursts with positivity and happiness. And if they could add a Unicorn to it, they would.

But it seems Toxic Positivity is becoming more and more prevalent.

And while the picture above shows Zuckerberg, it’s not specifically about him.

It’s about any organisation who deals with the raw realities of life with a thin, pained smile while they slowly and calmly explain to you everything is great and everything their company does is great and to even suggest otherwise – even if it comes from a desire to help make things better – is an act of intolerable aggression.

As much as toxic negativity is a dangerous act, so is toxic positivity.

It denies the truth for the people who need it the most.

And while I get why some companies would rather not deal with that, actively shutting it down to spout some inane and delusional ‘happy clappy’ message is equally as destructive, debilitating and harmful as it’s more negative cousin.

The reality is truth and transparency makes things better.

Nothing shows greater respect than giving someone objective truth for the single reason you want them to succeed more powerfully.

I appreciate it might not always be easy, but it’s always worth it.



Here’s To Those Comfortable With Uncomfortable …

I recently saw the above quote in The Athletic magazine.

The idea that Manchester City – albeit during their less successful period – had to provide ‘rain charts’ to show potential signings that their city was not wetter than London surprised me.

Then I came to my senses.

Society has an incredible knack of trying to lift themselves up by putting others down.

Obviously racism is the work example of this, but we do it everyday in lots of little ways.

From blanket attitudes such as …

“People from the North are backwards”.

To city affirmations such as …

“Manchester is the musical capital of England”.

To hierarchy comparison such as …

“I may be from Nottingham but at least I’m not from Derby”.

It’s not only bollocks, it’s also often stated by people who have never gone anywhere near the cities/countries they are negatively judging. Now I know people will say it’s all a bit of a joke – and I appreciate between mates, it can be – but there’s a lot of perceived truth in those sorts of statements, which has been exploited by all manner of organisations, especially politics.

When I lived in China, I was shocked how hard it was to recruit people from outside of Asia to come and work at Wieden+Kennedy.

OK, it may have been because they didn’t want to work with me … but even then, the amount of people who started off claiming to be interested and then said ‘it wasn’t for them’, was incredible. [Though maybe you will still find it understandable. Bastards. Ha]

There was a time where I almost gave up wanting to hire people from outside the region due to it being so much hassle. But the reality was I always felt it important to have a real mix in the gang. Sure, the vast majority of them had to be from the country/region – but by incorporating people from outside of it, I felt it created a tension that led to better and more provocative thinking. In addition, it could also help stop the blind and blinkered views we kept seeing and hearing from the West … because the more Westerners we got to experience the crazy, infectious magic of the nation, the more positive voices we would infect the rest of the world with.

But many people we talked to weren’t interested in changing their blinkered opinion.

So many didn’t even bother to investigate more about China, they were just happy to keep making their false judgements.

Oh they were all very happy to work for Wieden+Kennedy, they just didn’t want it to be in China and would often say, “but if you could connect me to people in London/Portland/NY/Amsterdam” etc.

And if they were really interesting and had a valid reason to not leave their country, I would.

Didn’t happen often.

I find it amazing that people – especially planners – don’t want to explore the World.

Planners go on about curiosity but what they mean is they are curious under certain conditions of personal comfort.

Behind a desk.
Surrounded by people and things they know.
Never venturing outside of the bubble they’ve created.

Of course not everyone is like this, but there’s a lot who are. Viewing the world and passing judgement on it via Twitter rather than experience.

In the case of China – as with anywhere I’ve lived – if the issue became about the country we were in, it probably wasn’t going to work. Of course it was OK to have concerns and questions, but if I sensed you saw it as a hardship rather than an opportunity or you thought you knew everything when you would have to relearn everything, you were not going to be someone I wanted on the team.

I was, and still am, eternally grateful to everyone I’ve had the honour to work with – and I’ve been incredibly fortunate with the incredible and diverse talent I’ve inherited and nurtured – however those in China will always have a unique place in my heart.

Because whether they were from China, Asia or further afield, all of them knew what they were taking on with the job. Not just in terms of the standards and expectations of Wieden+Kennedy, but the inherent perceptions, prejudices and lies that existed in society – and the ad industry as a whole – towards China and Asia.

And it’s for this reason that I fucking loved seeing them do work others could only dream about, especially when the industries perception was ‘China doesn’t do great work’ or ‘there’s no good planning in Asia’ … often muttered by people who have neither been to China or done great work.

But even that doesn’t make me as happy as seeing where they have all ended up …

Not just in terms of the level they’re at – from running departments, big pieces of business or companies – but the actual organisations they work with or have worked with.

Nike. Ideo. Tik-Tok. Wieden. Mother. 72. Anomoly. Supreme. Playstation. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Facebook. Google. Net-A-Porter. Instagram.

Not just in China but in countries that include America, Taiwan, Holland, UK, Singapore and Australia. Not forgetting the mob who decided to start their own thing and are now working on a bunch of fascinating projects from gaming to research.

I’m not just proud of them, I’m excited for them … because I truly believe they will do stuff that is interesting, intriguing and valuable for the rest of us.

And while most of their achievements are down to their talent and graft, another part is because of what China gave them.

Unique knowledge, experience and understanding of people and situations.

Some will never understand that.

Some will never value that.

But for those who were there – and the companies who hired them – they absolutely do.

Because while some make choices based on not wanting to leave things behind, this group of wonderful fools made their decisions based on what they could gain … and they didn’t need a rain comparison chart to convince them.

Thank you to all of them.

Thank you to anyone who runs towards the challenge not the comfortable.



Hello, Hope …
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